If You've Got "Bravado and Wherewithal" to Run Farmers Market, Let Mary Suhm Know ASAP

Categories: City Hall
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Patrick Michels
You have some four hours left to submit your proposal to run the Dallas Farmers Market. Might as well -- there's not a lot of competition. I spoke with Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm last night, and despite the fact the deadline's been extended several times, there may be but a single proposal in the stack, if that, when the 2 p.m. deadline rolls around. Which means Suhm doesn't expect the downtown market to go private any time soon.

"When you look back at the history of the Dallas Zoo, that was 20 years of trying to [go private] in one way, shape or form," she says. "I hope this doesn't take 20 years, but it's hard." She's referring to Dallas Zoological Society's taking over of the zoo last year. It only seemed out-of-nowhere. In reality, Suhm says, it took close to two decades.

"With the zoo, all the pieces fell into place all of the sudden," she says. "We tried to get the state to fund the zoo at one point. Taking the farmers market private? I thought this would be hard too, but I thought it was worth the it. And there's a chance someone will come forward with a proposal. This may be the beginning."

Suhm says she's spoken with interested parties, none of whom have submitted offers. I asked: Is that because annual losses run in the hundreds of thousands and the market's never made money?

"I don't know," she says. "What I get told is the private sector can always made money, and the reason it never made money is because the city never makes money."

I've spoken with more than a dozen people in recent weeks with either a deep interest or significant knowledge of the market's doings; Tom Spicer was but one. They all say more or less the same thing: Taking over something that's never made money is just a bad idea. And turning it over to a restaurateur, as has been rumored, is a bad idea too -- because preparing food has nothing at all to do with the growing and selling of produce. And they all complain: The market's facilities, save for Shed 2, are antiquated, in need of a complete overhaul likely to cost an enormous pile of cash. Nobody I've spoken with wants to lay out even more cash on an already money-losing venture.

"But when people say, 'Why should I take something that's never made money?,' that assumes you can't turn it around or that it can't be turned around," says Suhm. She disagrees with that assessment.

I asked her about long-simmering rumors that perhaps the city has considered selling off one of the lesser-used sheds to a developer in the hopes of putting some kind of a mixed-use development at that end of downtown. I asked her about other concepts floating around City Hall in recent years.

"We said in the RFP: 'Bring us any idea you want,'" Suhm says. "And that's one reason it's taken so long. People have a hard time getting their arms around it. It's a bad time for developers. I don't think we have preconceived notion of what to do with the market. We said, 'If you have a good idea, bring it.'"

There is, at the moment, a single proposal -- which is why the RFP was extended. Suhm doesn't foresee another extension following today's deadline. And so she and city staff will examine the proposal. They will negotiate to see if it's viable: "We'll sit down and say, 'We like this, we don't like this, change this, give us the best and final offer.' We'll have to wait and see how it goes from there."

If it's good enough, it'll go before a city council committee, then the whole council. But at the moment, chances of that happening are slim.

Other person has come down here with vision. It's still wide-open. We need somebody with a vision. And if it's not a viable idea, I won't do that. Somebody will come along some day with the bravado and the wherewithal and the experience to pull it off. I believe that. But maybe not today."
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